featured Media release Poverty

A call to action: Community agenda for social assistance adequacy and reform

The undersigned call on the Nova Scotia government to reform the social assistance system by significantly increasing assistance rates and embarking on a more meaningful and collaborative process of social assistance reform. Social assistance reform must eradicate the systemic discrimination and collective punishment embedded in the Employment Support and Income Assistance program. This Agenda is to ensure that people who receive income support under the Employment Support and Income Assistance program are treated with dignity and respect and their human rights to non-discrimination, an adequate standard of living, and social security are protected and valued within the social assistance system.

This agenda is supported by community groups and advocates listed at the end of this document. It has been crafted by a group of community organizations and people who have direct experience with the realities of life on social assistance in Nova Scotia and the policies that shape this system either through their work or their own first-hand experience.

First and foremost, this group insists that social assistance rates need to be immediately increased in the 2018/19 budget regardless of further consultation. Measuring adequacy by comparing the total amount of welfare income to the low-income Market Basket Measure (MBM) shows that no household type receives adequate support in Nova Scotia. The only true way to begin to address systematic oppression and uphold human rights within the social assistance program is to take this action.

We require a response to this agenda by January 15th, 2018.

Agenda for reform

The undersigned call for meaningful collaboration between the Department of Community Services and the community. This means ensuring that the people receiving Income Assistance and their allies and can work effectively in partnership with the Department of Community Services to achieve common goals and outcomes for the benefit of people in Nova Scotia. This process should:

  1. Conduct a 6-month formal consultation, with a working group comprised of jointly identified service providers and first voice individuals and their advocates prior to any further ESIA program changes.
  2. Develop a clear path to current and future community collaboration to the ESIA program and services.
  3. Work with people with first-hand experience as recipients of social assistance and their advocates and allies from the earliest possible stage to design social assistance programs and services, policies and legislative framework. This should be for the current reform process as well as any other change to legislation or policy in future, both internal and external.
  4. Remove barriers that may prevent individuals and organizations contributing to collaboration (travel costs, childcare, stipend for first-voice people, food etc).
  5. Give early notice of forthcoming consultations, providing materials in advance and in an accessible format, allowing enough time for organizations to include their service users, and employees in preparing responses.
  6. Develop an effective and transparent design and development of the ESIA program and services using a lens inclusive of human rights, social determinants of health, gender and rural communities.
  7. Using consultation, change the legislative framework for provincial social assistance in a way that sets the foundation for a culture of trust, collaboration and problem solving. Develop and introduce new legislation to govern the provincial social assistance program.
  8. Ensure procedural fairness is included in all aspects of the social assistance program through adequate policies, procedures, practices and a timely appeal mechanism. This should include the establishment of a research body- an academic, institution/other, must be established to review the existing appeal process and develop recommendations for new mechanisms that support fair, transparent and efficient access to benefits and appeal processes. This should include the option of an appeals body that is independent of the Department of Community Services to protect against the withholding of services and supports that the program is mandated to provide.
  9. Provide a transparent report on the implementation and associated outcomes and indicators, to be updated annually and made publicly available by the Province.
    1. Establish an annual, publicly available report that will outline progress on this Agenda for Reform’s recommendations, including progress against outcomes
    2. Establish a third-party body who will review and comment on the annual progress report and provide their comments to the Cabinet.
    3. Require that both the annual report and the third-party comments be tabled in the Legislature.

It is a matter of human rights

The social assistance system must be transformed to meet Nova Scotia’s international human rights obligations, including a right to an adequate standard of living and social security without discrimination as per the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights made legally binding on Canada in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and respecting the rights outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In its parallel Transformation of the Disability Support Program, the Province joined with the disability rights community in the development of a foundational Roadmap—rooted in and informed by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We demand the same human rights-anchored reform in a rebooted ESIA Transformation.

Social assistance reform must address the racialized nature of poverty in Nova Scotia, and in particular the disproportionate impact of poverty on African Nova Scotian and Indigenous communities. The support provided must address the effects of racism and discrimination, which have a devastating impact on health and well-being.

Solutions must address the impact of colonisation that resulted in First Nations being alienated from their land and resources and who continue to experience the result of the loss of cultural, spiritual and economic basis for thriving.

Equally significant is that the system be transformed to provide support to address barriers to the full participation of all equity seeking groups including the equality rights of women under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially in light of their economic disadvantage.

This reform must respect the rights of persons with disabilities, ensuring appropriate supports are provided to ensure equality of opportunity, and full, effective participation in society, accessibility, acceptance and respect.

The reform of the Income Assistance program must assess how policy, the design of programs, the allocation of resources and legislative rules and regulations, all impact people differently because of their social locations (i.e. gender, ‘race’, ethnicity, class, sexuality and age), as well as where they live (rural or urban) and the systems of inequality that are embedded in society (i.e. racism, colonialism, classism, heterosexism). This assessment must ensure that transformation has no unintended negative consequences, and moreover that it promotes the advancement of equality.

Nova Scotia is constitutionally committed to the ‘provision of essential public services of reasonable quality’ for all. In order to deliver on that promise, a redesigned social assistance program must be founded on and guided by human rights which Nova Scotia agreed to implement many decades ago.

What is adequate income support?

The Employment Support and Income Assistance program falls short of its responsibility to provide enough income support, which means that people have to rely on charities to meet their basic needs and many of their needs are going unmet. While the government has said it will raise the rates by 2-5% for some recipients in the year 2019 at the earliest, given the suffering endured by people because of how inadequate assistance is, there is urgency to increase the rates substantively and as soon as possible, which would be within the 2018/19 provincial budget. Total social assistant income for a single employable Nova Scotian covers the least amount of the low-income Market Basket Measure (MBM) at only 39.7% of the income needed to meet basic needs. For this individual, it would take an additional $11,526 per year to cover all essentials. The amount of basic social assistance provided by the Department of Community Services for an individual is $6,900 per year or a total of $575 per month.

The government must ensure that people are provided with enough income to live in dignity, to pay for all essentials, and enable people to look beyond daily survival to participate in the community. This participation must include adequate support to ensure those who can, are enabled to make viable plans to (re)enter the workforce, including by means of post-secondary education. People must not have to be destitute to receive support, and must be assisted to allow for short-term and medium-term transitional support. The withdrawal of income support cannot be held over people’s heads as part of a punitive process. Support must be provided based on a decision-making process that is fair, transparent, and predictable, given a full assessment of need.

An adequate amount of income must ensure that everyone, no matter where they live or the size of their family, have enough to cover costs of a basic standard of living including a healthy diet, transportation, shelter, clothing and other essential expenses (eg. communications cost). The amount must also provide a full range of accommodative supports for persons with disabilities and chronic health issues and for those trying to make a transition to viable employment.

Comprehensive poverty reduction plan

Ultimately what is required is more than a transformation of the income assistance system. What is required is a comprehensive approach to reducing poverty that ensures adequate income support as well as supportive services and programs are provided. The support provided must address the social determinants of health. What we know about the social conditions in which we live, grow, work, and age, which influence whether someone is healthy or not is that: “the degree of control people have over life circumstances, especially stressful situations, and their ability to act are the key influences.”1 The amount of income provided must be adequate, and it must be combined with supports and services to allow people to have control over decisions, and not have to experience constant stress about making ends meet every month.

1 http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/ph-sp/determinants/determinants-eng.php#unhealthy


Women’s Centres Connect (representing nine centres across Nova Scotia)

Nova Scotia College of Social Workers

Northend Community Health Centre

Nova Scotia Association of Black Social Workers

Imove/Uniacke Center for Community Development

Sisters of St. Martha, Antigonish

Dartmouth Family Centre/Dartmouth North Community Food Centre

The Stepping Stone Association

Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia

Dalhousie Legal Aid Service

Benefit Reform Action Group

Community Advocates Network

Vince Calderhead, Halifax Human Rights Lawyer

Jackie Torrens, Documentarian, My Week on Welfare

Michelle Mallette, Community Organizer and Anti-Poverty Activist

Bill Carr, Actor, Writer, Speaker and Co-Founder of Arc -The Atlantic Restorative Company

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-NS


Fiona Traynor @ (902) 209-6574
Dalhousie Legal Aid Service

Megan MacBride @ (902) 448-9401
North End Community Health Centre



  1. I am interested in following this. It is disgraceful to assume one can live on $525 each month.

  2. It is a crucial need to increase resources for humans that are hungry, vulnerable, and especially for those people you know are feeling lost. I say that inclusion can help things, and I stand by that. Having the monetary, social and medical support for people, who no fault of their own, are forced to live, to feed their family, sometimes on 60.00 per month. As a result, they feel shame when dealing with Social Services; this will improve circumstance. Perhaps having a police officer for your yearly meeting may help. While I’m being satirical, I sincerely hope finally, we the people, shall demand change to allow every human the right to live a life and be happy. Especially when there are more than enough resources for all of us, every one. We must stand against injustice when another human is being bullied. Standing as One is a miracle.

  3. I am wondering if there was a response to this action plan by the deadline given? Please let me know.

    1. My understanding is there was a response, but not a satisfactory one, and that the coalition will soon have more to say about this.

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